A nationally watched debate that may ultimately be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court has captivated this normally quiet San Diego County community, as a fundamentalist Christian majority on the city’s education board moves toward a policy mandating the teaching of creationism in public schools.
In January, the three-member majority of the Vista Unified School District board assured anxious parents that they would not champion what many feared would be the beginnings of a pro-creationism agenda.
Four months later, skeptical parents worry that the promise is about to be broken. And educators throughout the country are keeping an eye on Vista, which may yet offer a benchmark of the growing political power of the Christian right.
Tonight, scores will gather at a middle school in nearby Oceanside, where a capacity crowd will join in the school board’s discussion of proposed Policy No. 6019: Teaching Science.
Many see a trend developing. The board recently voted to begin its meetings with a prayer and may soon consider the issue of reinstating prayer at high school graduation exercises in defiance of Supreme Court rulings on the state and federal level.
Board members plan to vote on the proposed creationism policy at their next meeting in June, when they will decide whether to forbid teachers to teach science “dogmatically,” according to the proposal formulated by Board President Deidre Holliday, a member of the National Assn. of Christian Educators, a conservative political action group that seeks to influence school curricula.
Vista’s policy, if adopted, would encourage teachers to show “weaknesses that substantially challenge theories in evolution.” Holliday and her majority partners find such theories particularly objectionable.
Holliday acknowledged that she and her colleagues promised at a January meeting not to seek radical changes in the district’s science curriculum. But she said the new attempt to add creationism as a classroom discussion topic does not constitute a shattered vow. Science lessons will be enhanced by the change “but not diminished in any way,” she said.
The possibility that teachers may be asked to challenge the theory of evolution causes concern among officials for the State Department of Education, which establishes guidelines for public schools throughout the state.
“When used in a scientific context, we should make it abundantly clear that a scientific theory is not quite the same thing as my theory on why the New York Mets are having a bad year,” spokesman William L. Rukeyser said.
“The point is, when I say I have a theory about baseball or trout fishing or whatever, I’m basically saying I have a notion, a vague idea. The point the state board makes is that, in scientific discourse, a theory is quite different,” Rukeyser said. “It’s developed and tested and may be discredited--but only through established scientific procedure.”
Incumbent board member Sandee Carter, who with Linda Rhoades forms the two-person minority, said Wednesday that she had lost patience with the increasingly volatile issues surrounding the Vista board.
The goal of the three-member majority, she said angrily, “is to include religion in the classroom one way or the other,” a tactic Carter vehemently opposes.
She noted that after the January meeting, board member John Tyndall sought to include in the science curriculum the book “Of Pandas and People,” which critics say attempts to debunk the theory of evolution in favor of creationist concepts.
A teachers’ committee voted unanimously to reject the book, which Holliday said “makes ‘Of Pandas and People’ a dead issue"--a claim Carter calls highly suspicious.
“I do know that a lot of people are getting really worked up over everything, and that’s absurd,” Holliday said. Still, she said, the three-member bloc deserves some credit for shaking things up in town.
“I see the discussions going on in Vista as being quite healthy, as awakening the community and making it more alive than ever,” Holliday said. “We’re trying to accommodate everyone, without shutting anyone out, and I defy our opponents to make the same claim.”
Tom Conry, president of the Vista Teachers Union, said Holliday is correct in noting that debate has enlivened the community. And the fact that the city’s school district is under a national microscope, he said, is not necessarily a bad thing.
But the biggest problem faced by teachers, Conry said, is that many are increasingly confused “and worry that, if some of these policies are adopted, they won’t know what to teach.”
Carter calls the proposed science policy “superfluous . . . not at all necessary. We don’t have a policy telling teachers how to teach math, or social studies, or foreign languages.”
But the greatest concern of all, Carter said, is one expressed even by conservative Christians--that the board’s highly political posture will lead to lawsuits and the hiring of high-priced attorneys paid by taxpayers.
The American Civil Liberties Union notified the board this week of its intention to pursue legal action if the science policy is adopted. ACLU officials plan to attend tonight’s meeting, contending that school authorities are in danger of violating State Board of Education requirements and rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The issue at stake is the very essence of religious liberty in the United States,” meaning no one faith or philosophy should dominate, said Jordan Budd, staff counsel for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties.
“What’s ultimately at stake,” he said, “is nothing less than the separation of church and state.”
Nowhere in the country, Budd noted, is the issue of evolution versus divine creation so volatile a topic. But Vista is being watched for more than its stand on creationism.
“In the 1992 elections, the nation became awakened to the religious right’s takeover attempt of school boards,” said Michael Hudson of the liberal lobbying group, People for the American Way. “And Vista was the clearest example of a takeover. The reason it’s so important is that it will tell other districts what to fear and what to expect if the religious right takes control.”
The issue has polarized Vista, an inland bedroom community of 76,000, about 45 miles north of San Diego.
Barbara Donovan, whose 13-year-old daughter attends a middle school in Vista, resents what she calls the board’s attempt to equate religious concepts of the origins of the universe with long-established scientific principles.
The board’s action “makes me feel like I have to be constantly vigilant,” Donovan said. “I don’t feel my time should have to be spent this way, just constantly keeping track of the Vista school board. I’m a wife and a mother. I have a life. And, supposedly, there are laws to protect us.”
The board swept to power last November, when intense grass-roots campaigning ousted moderate incumbents Lance Vollmer and Marcia Moore and replaced them with Joyce Lee and Tyndall, who joined fellow fundamentalist Holliday to form the majority.
Holliday and moderate member Carter are up for reelection in November, 1994, when the majority may be restored to moderates, or a fourth Christian right candidate may be seated.
Many here would be thrilled to see that happen.
Members seeking to include creationism “have a valid point,” said Marilyn Cook, 47, whose three children graduated from Vista schools. “To leave it out for fear of trying to create Christians in schools is ridiculous. It’s no better than saying we’re creating atheists by teaching evolution.”
“Most of the strife in the world involves religions warring against one another,” Cook said. “Wouldn’t a little more understanding be a good thing?”
The Rev. Billy Falling, who has actively campaigned for many members of the Christian right in Vista and elsewhere called the attack on the three school board members “extremely bigoted and propagated mainly by the media. These three are trying to preserve a morality and system of values that have been under siege for far too long.”
Rancho Buena Vista High School may be one of the finest in the country, as evidenced by its 1991 National Blue Ribbon Award and a second honor that year for exemplary social studies. A national magazine recently picked it as one of the top high schools in California.
But Principal Alan Johnson said Wednesday that the furor surrounding the new board had created a divisiveness so deep that it blurs all noteworthy achievements and the multitude of problems “any urban school has to deal with.”
Johnson declined comment on the policies of the new board but pointed to a “Star Trek” poster hanging on the wall in his office, one line of which reads, “Humans are highly illogical.”
“Sometimes, ‘Star Trek’ says it best,” he said with a laugh.